Collaboration between two universities sparks a new approach to performing history
Joshua Garcia’s voice fills with emotion.
“I want to make clear that this is for the greater good. People are dying and to be stagnant goes against everything we believe,” he says during his portrayal of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and early champion of women’s rights. In the voice of Douglass, Garcia goes on to speak about the need for suffragists to support the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, giving black men the right to vote.
Garcia, a recent graduate from Radford University, is a member of the ensemble cast of “Women and the Vote,” a collaborative theatre project between his university and Virginia Tech.
Amanda Nelson, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, knew that 2020 would be an extraordinary year. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and protests calling for social justice happened, she had an idea that would involve rethinking traditional stage performance in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
“With all the focus on contemporary voting rights issues,” Nelson said, “the vote by mail conversations in the time of COVID-19, and the upcoming election, it’s important to look back to better understand the present and to move forward.”
She mentioned the anniversary to Molly Hood, an assistant professor in the Radford University Department of Theatre and Cinema, during a car ride to Staunton, Virginia, and the two had “Women and Vote” planned by the end of the trip. The cross-university collaboration would encompass an immersive theatre experience at a historic house.
Hood had the idea for the format, based on a production she had seen as a teenager. Audience members would move throughout the rooms of a house and encounter those who fought for equity during the suffrage movement, such as Douglass, famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, an advocate for the Chinese-American community.
The two professors pursued the idea with their respective institutions and received encouragement to offer the experience to students through theatre classes. Nelson and Hood found funding and engaged the Alexander Black House, a local museum and historic house in Blacksburg, as a performance space.
Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, causing both universities to cancel all live events.
Because “Women and the Vote” was a class, Nelson and Hood knew they needed to rethink the culminating presentation. During spring break, the two discussed putting the project online, and the idea of a special performance website emerged.
Next Nelson and Hood called in colleagues and friends to make it happen.
Hood recruited Jimmy Ray Ward, an associate professor of theatre design at Radford University, to create a virtual set design that is now the centerpiece of the website.
“We started with the idea of creating a dollhouse of the Alexander Black House as a framework,” Ward said. “And as Amanda and Molly worked through the play, we moved rooms around and created new ones that didn’t exist because certain characters needed specific places or items to tell their stories. It was a lot like creating a design for the stage, but without the concern of the cost of set building.”
William Arnold, a graphic designer who was already onboard to create the posters and playbill, designed the silhouettes for each historical figure.
And then there was the website itself. Nelson reached out to colleagues at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and Dylan Parker signed on as web developer for the overall site.
That left one important element: the students.
The two classes had come together in a blend of old-school and new technology. The students first met as pen pals, handwriting letters to one another, as they would have during the turn of the 20th century.
“The letters we exchanged with Radford made an awkward partnership with a class full of strangers feel more like a long-distance relationship,” said Lilly Church, a rising senior majoring in philosophy, political science, and economics, with a minor in theatre arts at Virginia Tech. “We quickly went from rival university students to excited classmates, just by adding the intimacy of letter writing. I’m sure if we had been together, we would have been closer, though I did get the sense that we were a team.”
Portraying Eudora Woolfolk Ramsey Richardson, a Virginia suffragist and author, was Church’s first time as a performer.
Then, before the pandemic, the students convened at the Alexander Black House with costume elements to immerse themselves in a historic atmosphere.
The students continued to connect through digital means, using social media and collaborative software.
Nelson and Hood worked with students to create monologues, coaching them through Zoom. Because each student had access to different technologies, they could do video or audio recordings.
In photos and video, many wear purple, gold, and white sashes, the colors of the suffrage movement. Sydney Poole, a student at Radford University, created those. A dedicated webpage includes her costume designs.
The site also includes staging diagrams, directors’ notes, and presentations on the history of stage management, theatre, and the suffrage movement.
And for those who enjoy a good, old-fashioned sing-along, viewers are encouraged to join the cast in a rousing rendition of “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” Rachel Groover, a Radford graduate who portrays Irish-American suffragist Pauline Adams, provided the ukulele accompaniment and pieced together individual voice tracks from each actor to create a chorus effect.
Several entities at both universities provided support for the project, beginning with an instructional innovation grant from the Virginia Tech Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a research/scholarly project award from the Radford University College of Visual and Performing Arts. From Virginia Tech, the project also received funding from the Center for Humanities; the School of Performing Arts; the Women and Minority Artists and Scholars Lecture Series Fund; and the departments of English, Religion and Culture, and Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management. Additional backing came from the Radford University Department of Theatre and Cinema and the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County.
Although Nelson and Hood missed the live-performance aspect, when they moved to a digital presentation, they are pleased with the ultimate outcome. They are also planning to present the project at a virtual international conference this summer.
“The silver lining is that we could see the project to completion in a totally different way than we imagined,” Hood said. “We rallied and finished the project. And I think it turned out better because now the work is there for many more people to experience than if we had done a live performance.”
Written by Leslie King